Lucy Stanton, Educator and Abolitionist, Was the First African American Woman to Graduate from College

Lucy Stanton from the Oberlin College Archives (source)

Lucy Stanton from the Oberlin College Archives (source)

On August 27, 1850, Lucy Stanton proclaimed the coming day when slavery would be abolished and encouraged the women at her commencement exercises at Oberlin College to be on the right side of history. She moved them with stories of women torn from their children and a brother killed in an attempt to protect his sister. She also connected the abolition of slavery to women’s rights, saying that “the freedom of the slave and the gaining of our rights, social and political, are inseparably connected, let all the friends of humanity plead for those who may not plead their own cause.” 

She called on the women to do their Christian duty and join the fight. “Woman, I turn to thee. Is it not thy mission to visit the poor? To shed the tear of sympathy? To relieve the wants of the suffering? Where wilt thou find objects more needing sympathy than among the slaves!”

Lucy was born free, but she had a passion to see others free as well. Born on October 16, 1831 in Cleveland, Ohio, she was the daughter of Samuel and Margaret Stanton. Samuel died before Lucy’s second birthday and her mother soon married John Brown, a wealthy businessman. Brown was an abolitionist and the family became involved in the Underground Railroad, often hiding as many as 13 runaway slaves in their home at one time. He also organized the city’s first school for African Americans, the Cleveland Free School, which Lucy attended.

In 1846, Lucy enrolled at Oberlin Collegiate Institute, later Oberlin College, where she became involved in the Ladies’ Literary Society and was elected its president. She completed the four-year Ladies’ Liberty Course, which is recognized as the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree, becoming the first known African American woman to graduate from college. (Mary Patterson graduated in 1862 as the first African American woman to earn a bachelor’s degree.) Her commencement address, “A Plea for the Oppressed”, was a response to the Fugitive Slave Act, which was expected to pass later in the year. It was well-received and reprinted in the Oberlin Evangelist.

After graduation, Lucy became the principal of a school in Columbus, Ohio, a position she held for two years until she returned to Cleveland and married William Howard Day on Nov 25, 1852. Day was a prominent abolitionist, a librarian, and the editor-in-residence of the abolitionist newspaper Aliened American, Cleveland’s first newspaper specifically for African Americans. In 1854, she published “Charles and Clara Hays” in the Aliened American, the first published short story by an African American woman.

In 1856, the couple moved to the Elgin Settlement in Buxton, Canada to run a school for escaped slaves. The Elgin Settlement was a community established by the Rev. William King, a former slave owner turned abolitionist. King purchased 9000 acres and relocated there with 15 of his former slaves to create a refuge for fugitive slaves from the United States. While at Elgin, their only child, Florence, was born. A year later, William traveled to England to raise money for the settlement and when he returned he asked Lucy for a divorce.

Elgin Settlement is not the site of the Buxton National Historic Site and Museum (source)

Elgin Settlement is now the site of the Buxton National Historic Site and Museum (source)

Lucy moved back to Cleveland and worked as a seamstress to support her daughter, but she also requested a position with the American Missionary Association. Because she was married, but estranged from her husband, the Association questioned her morality and required endorsements of her character. Lucy’s character had always been above reproach and she had no trouble gathering endorsements from religious and community leaders in Cleveland. In spite of this, the AMA rejected her.

The Cleveland Freedman Association, however, welcomed the opportunity to employ someone of her character and education. So in 1866, they sponsored her to move to Georgia, and later Mississippi, to teach in schools for newly freed slaves. It was in Mississippi that she met Levi Sessions. Having received her divorce in 1872, Lucy and Levi married in 1878 and moved to Tennessee.

In Tennessee and later in Los Angeles, California, Lucy continued her activism and philanthropic work. She was an officer in the Women’s Relief Corps, a grand matron of the Order of Eastern Star, and in Tennessee the president of the local Women’s Christian Temperance Union.

Like many black women, Lucy’s accomplishments are often overlooked and not as well documented as her white counterparts. She lived a life of purpose, promoting education and the rights of African Americans and women until she died on February 18, 1910 in California.

Resources

Sessions, Lucy Stanton Day (1831-1910) at BlackPast.org Remembered & Reclaimed
A Plea For the Oppressed by Lucy Stanton at BlackPast.org
“I Shall Have Your Sympathy, If Your Judgment Refuses Me Your Support”: Lucy Stanton
Day, the American Missionary Association,and the Politics of Respectability at Oberlin
College Archives
ALIENED AMERICAN – The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History
STANTON (DAY SESSIONS), LUCY ANN – The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History
Lucy Stanton at Wikipedia

 

Clementine by Sonia Purnell – A Book Review

Clementine: The Life of Mrs. Winston ChurchillClementine: The Life of Mrs. Winston Churchill by Sonia Purnell is a well-written comprehensive biography of a woman who probably hasn’t gotten enough credit for her contribution to the war effort. I’m speaking from the perspective of an outsider, an American, as opposed to a citizen of Great Britain. Perhaps Clementine’s work is better known and appreciated within her own country. It seems as though it was at the time, although the extent of her involvement in and knowledge of high level meetings probably wasn’t known.

I’m left wondering if Winston Churchill would have made it through WWII if it weren’t for Clementine. (She would probably be appalled at my use of her first name here.) She certainly made her own contributions in organizing the work of women and concerning herself with the people, such a equipping air raid shelters, but managing Winston and taking care of him was probably her greatest contribution. He was not an easy man to work for or with and she often acted as a buffer as well as being the only person who could approach him about certain things. She also was much more aware of how his actions were perceived among his staff and the public. I was surprised at how much more politically astute she was than Winston.

I went into this book without much knowledge of the Churchills, but it did help to have a basic knowledge of the world events that happened during their lives, especially WWII. I probably enjoyed the early part of the book more than the latter. Near the end of the war, it often seemed like a recitation of events with their reactions to them. However, the Epilogue was moving. It gave you a sense of how much less stress was in Clementine’s life after Winston died, yet at the same time how much she loved him.

It was not a perfect marriage, nor was Clementine a perfect woman. Purnell shows us the woman and the couple with both their good qualities and bad. But that’s what a good biography should do. And this was an excellent biography. I recommend it.

Louisa Adam’s Dangerous Journey

Louisa Catherine Adams c. 1820 by Gilbert Stuart (source)

Louisa Catherine Adams c. 1820 by Gilbert Stuart (source)

Prior to becoming President of the United States, John Quincy Adams held several posts as ambassador for the young country. During the War of 1812, he was posted in Russia and had taken his wife Louisa Catherine Adams and their third son, Charles Francis, with him. At the end of the war, John was called to Ghent to participate in the peace talks. It was winter, so he left Louisa and Charles behind to wait until he knew where his next posting would be.

The talks concluded more quickly than he thought and he sent word to Louisa to join him as soon as possible in Paris. In February of 1815, Louisa Adams left St. Petersburg traveling with Charles, then seven-years-old, a French nurse, and two men servants. The weather was bitterly cold, at one point causing even the Madeira they carried to freeze solid.

The journey was perilous, particularly during the winter, but along the way, Louisa met with a few friends and help from the locals. The snow in Courland (present-day Latvia) was so deep at one point that they had to ask for help. The bells were rung and the inhabitants “came out in numbers with pickaxe and shovel to dig us out.” Evidently, this was a common occurrence in the area. Another example of the type of danger she encountered occurred in Courland as well.

When they reached Mitau (also known as Jelgava), the capital of Courland, they stopped to rest for a few hours before proceeding another four miles and stopping for the night. While there she had two visitors. One, Countess Mengs, a woman Louisa had met in St. Petersburg and liked very much, came to extend an invitation to stay for a couple of days and meet some people she thought Louisa would like. Although she knew she would enjoy the visit as the Countess was “a woman of polished manners, fine sense, and charming conversation,” Louisa explained the urgency of her journey and declined.

After the Countess left, the innkeeper came in, shut the door, and checked the windows to be sure no one else was listening. He said he needed to speak to her in private. The house was well-appointed and he was a friend of Countess Mengs, but Louisa was becoming a little uneasy at the sense of mystery about him. After checking for listeners again, he sat down close to her and began his message.

He proceeded to tell her that there had been a dreadful murder along this very road the night before and urged her to wait for the morning before leaving. She told him that she only had four more miles to go and would arrive at the post-house before 9 or 10 o’clock, so she anticipated no risk. He then told her that he had only mentioned the murder incidentally and that the real reason he wanted to warn her had to do with one of her servants!

Louisa knew that one of the men had been taken prisoner from Napoleon’s army and was being sent back to France in her service, but the innkeeper proceeded to tell her that he was well-known in Mitau and was “a desperate villain of the very worst character.” He didn’t believe that Louisa’s life was safe if she kept him on as a servant. At the same time, the “gallant” gentleman begged her not to dismiss him in Mitau, because he was afraid the man would know where the information came from and “his house might be burned over his head.”

He didn’t think she was safe, but at the same time didn’t want her to do anything that would put him in danger. That along with telling her about the murder, incidentally, makes it seem that all he wanted to do was frighten Louisa. Certainly, that’s all he accomplished.

Louisa made a point of remaining calm and told him that the man had “behaved very well so far”, although she did suspect him of stealing a silver cup that belonged to her son, but she had no proof. He also was more efficient in making arrangements for the journey than the other man, and it had been stipulated by a bond that she couldn’t dismiss him, unless he behaved improperly, until they reached France.

The innkeeper then told her she should “appear to put all confidence in him [the servant], to seem to rely on him in any emergency, and to accept his advice if any difficulty occurred.” He then apologized for taking the liberty of speaking to her and begged her to keep their conversation a secret. She promised and said that it was time for her to leave and thought that if she changed her plans now it would seem suspicious. The Countess then reappeared and urged her to take her up on her offer and Louisa again declined.

“All this I declined, I fear, from a proud and foolhardy spirit, and the conviction that, however retarded, the difficulties of my path must be conquered, and it was as well to face them at once.”

She resumed her journey and after about four miles, the postilion stopped and told her that he wasn’t the man who usually traveled that road, the other being sick, and that they were lost.

“Until eleven o’clock at night we were jolted over hills, through swamps and holes, and into valleys into which no carriage had surely ever passed before; and my whole heart was filled with unspeakable terrors for the safety of my child. . . I consulted Baptiste frequently and took his advice as to the best mode of proceeding; and at twelve o’clock at night, the horses being utterly worn out, and scarce a twinkling star to teach of living light, we determined that Baptiste should ride one of the horses and endeavor to find a road through which we might be extricated from our perilous situation.” (She hasn’t mentioned the name Baptiste before, but I assume it’s the French servant she had been warned about.)

About fifteen minutes later, she heard voices and the trampling of horses feet. She was terrified and thought her heart would burst. Meanwhile, Charles Francis slept quietly.

Baptiste rode up to the carriage and told her that he had found a nearby house and a Russian officer who offered to help. The path they were on was even more treacherous than they imagined and they were surrounded by gullies that the carriage could fall into. Proceeding at “foot-pace” they managed to reach the inn about half-past one. After accepting refreshments and a small gift, the Russian officer left telling the innkeeper to take care of Louisa and her horses.

Louisa made a point to thank her servants for the “prudence and discretion” they had shown during the incident and told them to be ready to leave early in the morning. Louisa then went to bed, having survived the incident as well as the terror induced by the innkeeper’s warning.

“After thanking most devoutly the Almighty for His protection through this hour of trial, I sought repose with renewed confidence in the persons attached to my service, and determined not to listen to any more bugbears to alarm my nerves and weaken my understanding.”

Resources

Scribner’s Magazine, Volume XXXIV July – December, page 449. This is the narrative of her journey written originally for her family members, with an introduction by her son.

The Adams Women: Abigail & Louisa Adams, Their Sisters and Daughters by Paul C. Nagel

The Mysterious Disappearance of Theodosia Burr

Theodosia Burr Alston c. 1802 (source)

Theodosia Burr Alston by John Vanderlyn c. 1802 (source)

Theodosia Burr is yet another accomplished woman obscured by her famous, or in this case infamous, father, US Vice President Aaron Burr, of Hamilton vs. Burr duel fame. Very well-educated and politically astute due to a close relationship with her father, Theodosia was set to make a difference when she married wealthy South Carolina landowner Joseph Alston, but she never had the chance. At the age of 29, she set sail for New York from South Carolina and was never seen again.

Theodosia was the daughter of Aaron Burr and his wife Theodosia Bartow Prevost, a widow and ten years Burr’s senior. Born on June 21, 1783, she was the only surviving child of the marriage. Burr adored his daughter and having read Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, he decided to give her an excellent education.

Under Burr’s direction, Theodosia studied the traditional subjects for a young woman – music, dancing, and horseback riding – but also those typically reserved for boys. She studied French, Latin, Greek, and the classics, as well as arithmetic, natural science, and English composition. Theodosia was an exceptional student and was by some considered the most well-educated American woman of her generation.

When her mother died of cancer, she was eleven years old and Burr also took on her social education. By the age of 14 she began to manage the household and serve as the hostess for her father at their home, Richmond Hill, in present-day Greenwich Village. Burr even trusted her to entertain renowned Mohawk chieftain Joseph Brant who arrived one day in Burr’s absence with a letter of introduction.

“This will be handed to you by Colonel Brant, the celebrated Indian Chief… He is a man of education…. Receive him with respect and hospitality.” 

Over time, Theodosia became not only Burr’s pupil, but his primary and most trusted confidant. They wrote thousands of letters over her short life and she stood by him through all of his mistakes and misfortunes. The least of these being the debt he accumulated through excessive entertaining. Some even speculate that Theodosia’s marriage may have been an attempt to help aleviate this pressure.

Aaron Burr c. 1802 by John Vanderlyn (source)

Aaron Burr c. 1802 by John Vanderlyn (source)

In 1801, Theodosia married Joseph Alston, a wealthy South Carolina plantation owner and future Governor of South Carolina. Joseph may have been motivated to marry Theodosia in part to moderate his aristocratic status and make him more appealing to Republican voters. Regardless of their motivations, Theodosia’s letters to her father indicate that they had an affectionate relationship. They spent their honeymoon in Niagara Falls, beginning an American tradition.

In 1802 the couple had a son, Aaron Burr Alston, and from 1802 to 1812, Theodosia was a busy woman. Her husband began his political ascent beginning with election to the South Carolina House of Representatives, becoming Speaker of the House in 1805, and finally being elected Governor in 1812 by the General Assembly.

Also during this time, Burr had two crises. The first in 1804, was his decision to challenge Alexander Hamilton to a duel. The duel took place in New Jersey, and Hamilton after being shot was taken back to his home in New York where he died. Although dueling was illegal in both New York and New Jersey, and Burr was charged with multiple crimes, including murder, he was never tried. For a time he stayed with Theodosia in South Carolina, but eventually returned to Washington, DC to complete his term as Vice President.

In 1807, Burr desperately needed his most loyal supporter when he was indicted for treason. The charge was that Burr was gathering forces and planned to create an independent country including 40,000 acres in Texas territory, leased to him by the Spanish Crown, and parts of Mexico. Of course, he would be the leader of this new nation, and some suggest that he had been grooming Theodosia to be his successor. Historians disagree on Burr’s actual intentions, and we will probably never know, but he was acquitted of all charges.

After the trial, Burr went to Europe where he spent four years. During this time, Theodosia was his agent in the US where she raised money for his support and acted as a go between hoping to smooth his return to the country. When he finally returned in July of 1812, the joyful reunion that they anticipated was never to occur.

In June, just before her father’s return, Theodosia’s son died of a fever. Her health had been poor since his birth and his death almost killed her. In addition, the War of 1812 began in June and her husband as Governor was head of the state militia and couldn’t accompany her to see her father. It was December before Theodosia felt she could make the trip.

Burr sent an old family friend with some medical knowledge, Timothy Green, to accompany her. The schooner, Patriot, which had been used as a privateer during the war, was refitted to erase any evidence of its recent activity, and the captain was prepared to make a fast run to New York City. On December 31, 1812, Theodosia, Green, and Theodosia’s maid sailed from Georgetown, South Carolina. The passengers and crew were never heard from again.

*****

Numerous rumors have arisen suggesting the Patriot was captured by pirates including Dominique Youx, wreckers or Carolina “bankers” who lured ships ashore on the Outerbanks and murdered the crews, or a vessel piloted by John Howard Payne. In the case of Payne, documents supporting this theory were supposedly found in the Alabama State Archives stating that the crew included a “woman who was obviously a noblewoman or a lady of high birth”, but Foster Haley, who put forth this theory never identified the documents he cited.

In his 1872 novel, Fernando de Lemos: Truth and Fiction: A Novel, Charles Etienne Gayarre supposedly combined truth and fiction and includes a confession by the pirate Youx where he admits finding the ship wrecked off of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, and murdering the crew including a well-bred young woman. The assumption that there was some truth in Gayarre’s book fueled the rumors that this confession might be real.

The "Nag's Head Portrait" possibly by John Vanderlyn, now hangs in the Lewis Walpole Library at Yale University (source)

The “Nag’s Head Portrait” possibly by John Vanderlyn, now hangs in the Lewis Walpole Library at Yale University (source)

In 1903, a Mrs. Harriet Sprague issued a sworn statement regarding a confession of Frank Burdick, a shipmate of Youx. In it Burdick said that they had discovered the wrecked Patriot and had left Theodosia’s clothing and a portrait of her at the wreck. Also in 1869, Dr. William G. Pool received a portrait of a young woman in white as payment for treating Mrs. Polly Mann, a poor fisherman’s wife. Mrs Mann said that the portrait was found on board a wrecked ship during the War of 1812. Later, Pool became convinced that the “Nag’s Head Portrait” was of Theodosia, but couldn’t confirm this with any remaining relatives at the time.

There has also been speculation that Theodosia was the “Female Stranger” who died at Gadsby’s Tavern and was buried at St. Paul’s Episcopal church Cemetery in Alexandria, Virginia in 1816.

It is likely that the ship was caught in a storm off of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. The logbooks of the British fleet, which was blockading the coast, report a severe storm in the area on January 2, 1813 with “near hurricane-force winds” continuing into the next day.

However, my favorite theory, although highly improbable, is that a Karankawa warrior from the Texas gulf coast found a ship wrecked at the mouth of the San Bernard River. When he investigated, he found a naked white woman chained by her ankle and carried her to shore. He revived her only to have her die in his arms. But before she did, she gave him a locket inscribed “Theodosia” and told him that her father was a great white chief who “was misunderstood by his people and had to leave his country.” She told him that if he ever met white men, to show them the locket and tell her story.

Whether Theodosia was killed by pirates, died in a shipwreck, or was carried away to the gulf coast as a prisoner, we will never know, but she has made her mark in popular culture. She is the subject of Anya Seton’s novel My Theodosia, and makes appearances in Robert Frost’s poem “Kitty Hawk” as well as Gore Vidal’s novel Burr. Most recently, she is remembered in the song “Dear Theodosia” in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton.

Oh and of course it is rumored that Theodosia still roams the beach at Bald Head Island in North Carolina, perhaps searching for her painting.

Resources

Episode #22 – Theodosia Burr at History, Bitches (podcast)

Theodosia Burr Alston: Portrait of a Prodigy by Richard Cote

Theodosia: The First Gentlewoman of Her Time by Charles Felton Pidgen

Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist – A Book Review

Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, FeministUntil recently, my knowledge of Nellie Bly was limited to her 10 days in a mental institution and her race around the world, both stunts she performed for the sake of newspaper articles. Then I read a blurb which listed some of her other accomplishments. Of course in typical fashion, I can’t remember where that was, but it prompted me to read a biography to learn more about her.

Brooke Kroeger’s book, Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist, is well-written, very well-researched, and full of details, in some cases more than I wanted. Bly seems full of contradictions, especially when it comes to calling her a feminist, but her articles are full of information about her and her feelings about the person or topic she is writing about. Kroeger makes good use of quotes to give us a feel for these contradictions.

Bly was born Elizabeth Jane Cochran and called “Pinky” by her family and friends. (The “e” was added to the last name later.) Her father, an immigrant from Ireland, worked his way up from mill worker to owner and left the family reasonably well-off when he died. But a disastrous second marriage by her mother, Mary Jane, and mismanagement of the children’s trust funds left Elizabeth with a distrust of some men, and a need to make her own way.

She didn’t, however, set out to become a reporter. In response to a column in the Pittsburgh Dispatch, Elizabeth wrote a letter to the editor signed “Lonely Orphan Girl.” The editor then wrote an ad asking the author to identify herself; she did and her career began. He chose the name Nellie Bly as a pseudonym, commonly used by women at the time, and judiciously edited her early articles. Throughout her twenties, Nellie Bly wrote for women’s pages (although she hated it) and did “stunt” journalism, such as the “around the world” articles (which she loved).

Journalism was something that Nellie always returned to. By the time she was 30, she had such name recognition that she could always find work. But her life took a different turn when at the age of 31, she married 73 year old millionaire Robert Seaman. The relationship is intriguing and Kroeger does a good job describing the interaction between the two. Through Seaman, Bly became a businesswoman, eventually becoming the President of his business, the Iron Clad Manufacturing Company. She also became an inventor and was issued a number of patents related to the business.

There were three major elements which consumed the rest of Bly’s life after Robert’s death: litigation regarding the company, her coverage of World War I from Austria, and her final years writing a column which led into a type of social work. All of this was unknown to me and I found it very interesting, with the exception of the extensive litigation. This did, however, give a lot of insight into Bly’s relationships with her family, her return to journalism, and her attitudes toward women and women’s issues at the end of her life.

The parts I enjoyed most were about Bly’s childhood and her time in Austria during the war and its aftermath. I found it astounding how uninformed she was about the war overall and specifically the stance of the United States. Never one to let what other people think affect her opinion of herself, she was convinced that she had information that President Woodrow Wilson desperately needed. With a decidedly pro-German outlook, she was definitely of interest to Military Intelligence.

Overall, the book is well worth the read. Nellie Bly was certainly much more than a “girl” reporter.

Brooke Kroeger is a journalist, a professor of journalism at New York University, and has four published books.